Last weekend marked my first solo trip. I decided to start slow by taking a one-hour flight up to Portland, Maine for Memorial Day weekend.
Being an independent introvert, I was excited to travel alone. I could go anywhere, see anything, not answer to anyone! Which is funny, considering that my greatest highlights from the trip ended up being my interactions with PEOPLE.
I’ve spent almost two years in New York, which, despite being full of complex individuals, is a city that silently discourages eye contact or interactions with strangers. It’s simply Not Done. It took a four-day stint in Maine to remind me that people are INTERESTING. Each person is a walking encyclopedia of experiences, feelings, emotions, thoughts. People make the world go ‘round.
So many more people talk to you when you’re traveling alone, too. When you’re part of a group or even just a pair, you inadvertently create this invisible buffer that dissuades most people from bothering you. When you’re solo, you’re approachable.
Then, on the other side of the board, when you’re vacationing alone, you start to crave human interaction. Being alone forces you to ENGAGE. It’s funny how you have to go cold turkey on some things before you realize just how important they were to you in the first place. I talked to more people in a single weekend than I had for the previous month, and I was the one that prompted most of those interactions.
Honestly, I feel like I should treat my experience like a writing exercise, where I take this sampling of people and craft a short story about each of them, or something to that effect. Just look at this selection:
1. I was walking along the cobblestones in Old Port when I, in true Emme fashion, tripped and stumbled for a few steps. I recovered and kept walking. But then I noticed this older man standing off to my right. He kept making this strange motion with his upper body, and it took me a good twenty seconds to realize that he was imitating my near-fall. We made eye contact; I watched his eyes crinkle as he tried to hold the mirth in. We both cracked up laughing at the same time. “I was trying to be discreet, man!” I exclaimed, still laughing, as I walked closer to him. He held out his hand for a high five, I reciprocated, and then simply kept going.
2. My Uber driver during a trip in South Portland, who spoke in clipped, accented sentences. Curious, I asked him where he was from. “Russia. Been in Portland…20 years.”
3. The owner of a gelato shop in Old Port. She moved from Italy to Portland five years ago, specifically to open up a proper gelateria. She proudly talked about her son, who is attending school down in Florida because he “hates the cold in Portland.”
4. Aaron and Glenn, the two Texan men, that I met at the lobster shack down at Cape Elizabeth. I had chuckled at their attempts to take a proper selfie. “Don’t laugh at us! We’re tourists!” “No worries, I’m a tourist, too. Nebraska.” “Texas.”
Later on, I ran into them again, walking along the same road — as it turned out, we were all looking for the same lighthouse. A local saw us wandering around in confusion and let us know that the lighthouse was privately owned and therefore inaccessible, BUT there was a neat forest path right there that we could take for a great view of the coast.
While walking along the path, the guys and I discussed football, reflecting on the days when our schools were actually in the same division. It was nice; made me homesick, oddly enough.
Later on, I learned that Glenn was on a cross-country road trip for charity, and had met up with Aaron in the Catskills the week before. At their invitation, I decided to become a proper character in Glenn’s travel story by joining them on the drive to the famous Portland Head Light. We stuck together until Willard Park, and then amicably parted ways.
5. After stumbling upon Fort Preble one chilly morning, I headed west, trying to see if I could find Bug Light without needing to check a map. Turns out that Southern Maine Community College’s campus is extremely deserted in May, and I was a little on edge as I consulted the campus map near one of the buildings. This car pulls up and a woman gets out. (Cue my relief, since women don’t have much of a reason to fear other women.) One of her arms is in a cast. “Excuse me,” she says. I look over. “Can you zip up my jacket?” I blink. “Sure.” That done, she left without another word.
6. Another Uber driver; this one named Ben, from D.C. He’s been in Portland for five years but, prior to that move, he was in Brooklyn. We joked about how damn long it takes to travel from Queens to the Bronx, among other things.
7. I decided to go and have a lobster roll at Lobster Company. It was a beautiful day, and the whole wharf was packed with people. A squat, older woman and I played an impromptu game of musical chairs as we took turns vacating this one spot to fetch our food. I finally told her to take the chair, and then, lo and behold, the adjacent chair opened up. She and I shared small quips in between bites of seafood. I never learned her name or where she was from or why she was alone.
8. Yet another Uber driver; Joe, who, about ten minutes into the trip, looked in the rearview and said, “By the way, I have a surprise passenger in the back, just in case you–” I looked and squealed at the border collie just casually napping in the trunk compartment. Oscar wasn’t as astounded to meet me as I was to meet him, but I let that slide.
9. I was walking near Bug Light and saw a older-looking building sitting off by itself. I went inside on a whim and discovered that it was Portland’s Historical Society, filled with shipyard artifacts. I met the two volunteers who ran the place: Art, an older, enthusiastic man who only spoke out of the left corner of his mouth; and Leslie, an older woman who spoke one sentence for every thirty sentences that came out of Art.
Together they gave me a full rundown of Portland’s surprisingly fascinating history. I stayed there for two hours, listening.
That’s really all it takes, isn’t it? Knowing how to listen?
Thanks for reading,